Strictly Come Dancing star Nancy Dell’Olio today lost a libel claim she brought against the Daily Mail over an article which she said portrayed her as a “serial gold-digger”.
Her counsel, William Bennett, told Mr Justice Tugendhat at the High Court that the key message in the article about her relationship with 71-year-old theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn, which appeared in the newspaper on April, was set out in the headline: “Return of the man eater”.
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“A man eater is an animal which hunts and kills human prey. In the context of the words complained of, it means a woman who hunts men but, rather than kill and eat them, uses them for her own selfish ends,” Bennett said.
“The use of the word ‘man eater’ excludes the possibility of romantic love or the possibility of a genuine emotional draw to another human being.
“Just as the lion hunts the deer for food, Nancy Dell’Olio hunts the millionaire for his money.”
Bennett said the predator metaphor was fleshed out in the article which questioned what could attract an “alluring” very well-dressed younger woman to a man who “looks like a scruffy geography teacher” who was two decades older than her and wore “battered plimsolls”.
He said Dell’Olio was not presented as having a mutual interest in the theatre with Sir Trevor or as the sort of intellectual with whom he normally associated.
Her case was that the story meant she was a serial gold-digger who cynically sought out relationships with men because they were millionaires capable of funding her conspicuously lavish and ostentatious lifestyle.
‘Words were unflattering but not defamatory’
Mark Warby QC, for Associated Newspapers, said that while the article might not be wholly flattering, it did not convey the defamatory meaning complained of.
He said that Dell’Olio was nowhere called a gold-digger and the article could not reasonably be read as implying that her sole motivation was money, to the exclusion of genuine emotion.
It made clear that Sir Trevor was the initiator of the relationship and explicitly reflected the genuine emotional commitment involved on both sides.
The references to Sir Trevor’s generosity and healthy bank balance and Dell’Olio’s expensive lifestyle and lack of any obvious income source were clearly depicted as fringe benefits for a woman of expensive tastes, and not as her aim and object when entering into the relationship.
Warby added that the term “man eater” was certainly capable of suggesting predatory behaviour but that was not at all the same thing as being a “serial gold-digger”, and no reasonable reader of the whole article could be left with that impression.
Justice Tugendhat said: “I accept that the title to the words complained of is unflattering and even insulting, as are the other references to money. But that is not the same as being defamatory.
“The question is whether the words complained of are capable of substantially affecting (or tending to affect) in an adverse manner the attitude of other people towards this claimant, whether in the meaning advanced by the claimant, or in some other meaning.”
Dell’Olio was “very well known to the public, and has been for a number of years”, the judge said, adding that the article assumed that the reader already knew who she was.
“In my judgment the references to lifestyle, money and wealth in the words complained of, insulting though they may be, do not elevate the matter to the level of seriousness required to overcome the threshold of seriousness required if a publication is to be capable of being defamatory,” Mr Justice Tugendhat said.
Claim struck out
He took it that Dell’Olio’s real object was to prevent the Daily Mail’s publisher, Associated Newspapers Ltd (ANL), from repeating similar words about her.
“If that is so, the court must consider whether it is necessary or proportionate for the court to require (by injunction or otherwise) ANL to refrain from publishing articles about the claimant which refer to the wealth of her associates, or her own lifestyle, in terms which might suggest that financial concerns form a significant factor in her motives. In my judgment the answer must be in the negative.”
He said: “The words complained of are not capable of bearing the meaning attributed to them by the claimant in her particulars of claim or any other defamatory meaning of which she might complain.”
He refused permission to appeal although Ms Dell’Olio can renew her application directly to the Court of Appeal.
Dell’Olio was not in court to hear the judge strike out her claim.